National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica,
Swan Theatre High Wycombe Monday 24 September 2001
Currently touring the U.K. after an absence of 15 years, this company offers an evening of dance and music celebrating the cultural and spiritual heritage of Jamaica. The programme I saw included two song cycles and a musical interlude. The song cycles made good listening from a musical point of view but I missed all the jokes thanks to my rudimentary knowledge of Jamaican idiom. However the jokes were not lost on the capacity audience who roared into appreciative laughter from time to time. Luckily the jokes in the dance part of the programme were easier to spot.
The importance of spirituality in all its manifestations shone through the whole programme, an aspect which came as a surprise to me. There was an example of what I took to be a sort of Voodoo trance in one piece which, at the sound of a church bell, ceased immediately only to be replaced by a pious demeanour and the replacement of a flowery hat over the more traditional headscarf. Another piece ďBujuramaĒ was described in the programme as a celebration of grounded spirituality. It had some distinctly earthy moves ≠ thatís all Iím saying!
The first piece called Sacred Songs, choreographed by Arlene Richards, was a dance interpretation of such well-known songs as the 23rd Psalm, presented here in a taped gospel choir form. The simple, flowing white costumes of the women echoed the lyrical dance style and I particularly like the arm and shoulder movements: strong but curved and flowing, quite unlike the stiff gestures commonly seen in contemporary dance.
The second piece, Vision, was choreographed by Clive Thompson (formerly with the Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham companies) and was a pas de deux danced to more spiritually-inspired music including what must be the most sentimental version of Ave Maria I have ever heard. Two alternative pairs of dancers were listed and in the absence of photographs to go with the biogs in the programme I donít know who the performers were. The choreography seemed to be quite heavily classical-ballet influenced and although the dancers were at home dancing solo they seemed to experience some difficulty during a section of really tricky lifts and balances. They got through OK but it was one of those frozen moments without which no evening of dance would be complete.
The third piece was Tintinabulum, by Rex Nettlefold, the companyís Founder, Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer, and revealed a strong narrative thread. A series of scenes unfolded, starting from youth with a trio of friends competing with each other in sports and trying to impress the girls. Later they have moved on into adulthood ≠ one is a priest, one a young blade and one a member of a sinister gang of some kind. Each has a group of acolytes, interestingly the priest and the young blade have female supporters, whereas the gang member has a mainly male group but with one female member, disturbingly clad in a similar black outfit to her male companions but sporting a startling platinum blonde wig, a la Sylvie Guillem in one of her more exuberant moments. The sinister gang overcomes both the priest and the young blade in a macabre recall of their boyhood games and eventually the three boyhood friends lie dead. In view of the recent events in New York and Washington, my thoughts were a little bleak at this point, however the friends reappear as spirits, draped in all-encompassing white hoods and shrouds, only recognisable from their distinctive physiques, and are reunited in friendship and mutual support. I found this very moving.
After the interval we saw Bujurama choreographed again by Rex Nettlefold. I have referred to its earthiness above. Rarely have hips moved so fast and so gyratingly without dislocating. The dance was lively and amusing and the costumes eye-catchingly spangly. A joyous introduction to the second half of the programme. The second piece was a solo danced to Amazing Grace, choreographed by Arlene Richards, and once again I was struck by the beautiful movement of the upper torso and arms. Like Sacred Songs, this was a straightforward celebration of the spiritual dimension of human experience.
The final piece, Gerrehbenta was again by Rex Nettlefold. This piece seemed to me to be the most obvious exploration of the traditional influences which have melded to produce Jamaican culture. It contains references to the ceremonies inherited from Africa in which the dancers invoke the spirits of their ancestors at times of celebration and mourning and includes a strange animal figure with a cartoon horsehead mask atop an enormously tall figure inside which a dancer twirls and gyrates. A shawl dance forms a strong feature and the whole piece is danced to traditional music played and sung live. As the piece progresses the various elements are gradually replaced by a series of repetitive musical phrases and steps as the dancers sweep en masse back and forth across the stage wearing theatre versions of colourful Afro-Caribbean dress. The build-up of repetitions had a mesmeric effect and I could well appreciate how such ceremonies may cause participants to go into a trance. A rousing finale to the evening.
You will not get dance of the highest quality from this company. The dancers are not full-time professionals but have day jobs ≠ one is listed as an attorney-at-law ≠ and get together for a one-month season each year, training and preparing the rest of the time. What you will get is an evening of celebration of a little-known culture presented by a group of dancers, singers and musicians who clearly love what they do. In fact they reminded me quite strongly of the Mark Morris Company, both for their physical disparity and for the exuberance and sheer joy of their performance.
The tour continues as follows:
Crucible Theatre, Sheffield 25-26 September
Notts Concert Hall, Nottingham 27-28 September
Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham 29-30 September
Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury 2-3 October.